Chapter 19

“Sister Ryan. You are well, I trust?”

The Reverend Mother of St Dominique’s turned in her high-backed leather chair, and looked out on the afternoon lawn that spread down to the Chesapeake Bay. Were this the administration office of most Convents of the Order, the expensive, hand-tooled leather chair might have been considered a bit much. As it was, St Dominique’s was anything but average. Clearly a desperate attempt on the part of a wealthy parishioner to leverage his way past the herd of camels outside the Pearly Gates, he left his entire estate to the Church, including furnishings, and said high-backed leather chair. An early 20th Century shrine to patriarchal class privilege, the library, overlooking Chesapeake Bay, served to house the Administration of St Dominique’s Convent and Elementary School. It was here that the Mother Superior, Sister Bernadine Ellison, had her office.

“And Sister Phyllis? Yes, she is a remarkably steadying influence. So, when is your flight?” Sister Bernadine looked down at the desk blotter/calendar on her desk, its checkerboard calendar camouflaged by a maze of scrawled notes, most written in blue ink (she preferred $3.00 per dozen Bic ballpoint pens) with the occasional red-ink notation.

“So that’ll get you in to Philadelphia around 11:00 pm. Oh no, we’ll all still be up, at that time of night.” Sister Bernadine laughed,

“Why so late? Yes, I do know you have a key. I’m the one who gave it to you, remember? I think I’ll have one of our custodians take the school van and meet you at the terminal. They’ve been asking for some overtime and we have it in the budget. Yes, if it comes to that, we could always sell one of the convent’s crystal chandeliers on ebay.”

Sister Bernadine could hear, in the background, the tentative laughter of young women, probably the newer nuns at St Emily’s, as Sister Margaret repeated the joke about the chandeliers in St Dominiques. There was a pause, followed by the careful sound of a door being shut completely but discretely. Sister Margaret began to speak in a tone that, while not exactly muffled, was clearly meant to not be overheard.

“I’ve got one last thing to do before I come home, Reverend Mother. That lead I mentioned? The information on the person who actually designed the website/blog product? I know where he lives. In fact, I’ve been in touch with his grandmother. No, a long story; I’ll tell you when I get back. Bottom line, I’m going to meet him, ask a few questions, hopefully learn something useful. No, I’m not concerned, it shouldn’t be dangerous. Unless, of course, you consider a software engineer in his late 20’s, who’s staying with his grandmother to constitute a threat.” Sister Margaret laughed at her own joke. There was a tone of…not so much confidence, as determination. To Sister Bernadine’s increasing disquiet, it was as if the question of danger simply was not a factor in Sister Margaret’s planning. There was a confidence, a tone that could be mistaken for certainty, in the manner she described her plans to continue the investigation into the death of St Emily’s Parish Priest. This was very much a new quality to the young woman who, only a year ago, stood with a single suitcase in her hand and asked to be allowed in to the convent.

“I know it’s a long shot. But, Father Noonan did think that the problem involved, to some extent, the school’s computer. And my having something of an expertise in computers was why you picked me, right? ‘Neither computer nor religious‘, is what you told me. Still not sure I know what would qualify… wait, I did attend an Ivy League School, not exactly MIT, so yeah, your instincts about me were probably on the money.” Sister Bernadine started to speak, but Margaret Ryan continued, almost as if she was talking to her Reverend Mother as a sounding board, rather than reporting to the woman who was responsible for her well-being (physical and spiritual).

“It’s kinda hard to ignore the fact that four out of six people, all friends, managed to die within a couple of months of each other, and all under fairly mysterious circumstances. Gotta believe there’s a connection. According to Father Noonan’s journal, they were members of that blogging club, the ‘Hermes Consortium’. How lame an excuse for a club name was that! All of them went their separate ways after graduating, just to turn up dead this winter. In any event, I’m going to ask this software engineer, Stephen Eddington, some hard questions and see if that helps. I don’t know what else to do. No, I’ll be careful! Seems like he came back to Chicago and is staying with his grandmother… how diabolical can that be?” Again Sister Margaret Ryan laughed and again, Sister Bernadine was startled by the tone. The confidence almost gleefully anticipated what was certainly going to be an unpredictable, if not all-out dangerous meeting.

“What about that police detective you spoke of? Perhaps if you called her, she might give you a ride and, what do they say in the movies, ‘be your back-up’?” Sister Bernadine caught herself putting a certain questioning up-lilt to her voice, betraying a growing disquiet with the events unfolding.

“No, I’ve got this. Maribeth tends to be mostly hammer and hardly ever feather. Yeah, you’d like Detective Hartley, she has quite the temper! Tell Sister Clare I’ll be home tomorrow and I’ll look for the chauffeurs holding up the St Dominique’s signs at the airport.” Sister Margaret laughed and was about to hangup when Sister Bernadine, hastened to say,

“Sister Margaret! Listen very closely to me. I know what you’re thinking. I’m your Mother Superior for more reasons than having a fancy office with a water view. I know how much you love the life we all share. This business of Father Noonan and St Emily’s is important to me, but it is not important to the Convent. I won’t try to forbid you to do anything more than get on the plane and come home, I know far better than you might think, the likelihood of that doing any good. Just be careful. There’s a reason you feel at home with us, listen to that part of yourself now. You can trust God to help and you are not any more (or any less) the girl that showed up on our doorsteps a year ago. We love you. Be careful.” The Mother Superior of St Dominique’s Convent held her rosary in her left hand.

“I will, Reverend Mother. I’ll be careful and I’ll be on the plane home by the end of the day.” Sister Margaret hung up the phone.

Sister Bernadine turned off her phone and sat very still. Her breathing un-noticeable and with her eyes closed, the bleached white of the guimpe beccame a halo to the dark coffee of her face. Were one to look in at the office, they might have made the mistake of assuming that Sister Bernadine was asleep. She was anything but. She dial a three digit number of an extension within the convent’s phone system.

“Sister Catherine? Are you in the library? Do me a favor, and go over and take a look at the school website. I’ll wait. Nothing unusual? What? Read me exactly what you see on the screen!”

Sister Catherine’s voice was perfectly neutral as she spoke, “Scrolling across the top, ‘This is a free website upgrade! courtesy of your Friends at Omni Corp, ‘We’re always ready to serve’.”

Sister Bernadine’s brow arched on its own. “It’s nothing. Sister Catherine, do me a favor? Go find our intrepid custodians, Gutiérrez and Roncesvalles and have them come to my office right away, please”

Twenty minutes later, there was a tentative knocking sound that seemed to somehow be coming from within the antique carved doors,

“Come in.” Sister Bernadine did not look up at the two men who walked into the office and stood, without speaking in front of her desk.

“Go to the school library. Disconnect the computer and bring it here and put it on that table in the corner there. Do it now.” Sister Bernadine turned her chair and looked out the windows and tried to see if that really was a fishing boat that was slowly moving towards the inlet that formed the shoreline of the Convent grounds.

***

“Mrs. Eddington? I’m Margaret Ryan, we spoke on the phone the other day, I was asking about your grandson, Stephen?” I stood on the concrete steps that led up to an enclosed porch across the front of an older two story house that had a pool table’s worth of green for a front lawn. I watched as Hazel Eddington opened the inner door and take two steps to reach the storm door, her face a daguerreotype through the worn mesh of the screen door. She fiddled with the inside latch and pushed the door outwards, causing me to step down one stair to avoid being hit by the metal frame.

“Yes, who did you say you were?” she looked directly out of the door, which, given that there were eight concrete steps leading up to the porch, and I had stepped down two steps, meant she was staring about two feet over the top of my head. Only when I spoke again, did she adjust her line of sight.

“Margaret Ryan. I called you the other day and you said that Stephen was at work and would be home soon. I’m sorry I didn’t call before I came over, but I’m getting ready to go back to the…. To go back home tomorrow, so I thought I would stop by before I left town. I hope you don’t mind.”

“Why on earth would I mind? You sound like a nice girl and I don’t get to see any of Stephen’s friends anymore, since he moved to Utah. Well, if the truth be known, I don’t see much of anything anymore in the last few years. Now don’t stand out there, come in, come in.” She backed away from the storm door and stepped up through the inner door into a central hallway. There was a staircase to the right and, to the left, two French doors that opened to the living room, what the original owners of the house would have referred as the parlor. Through an opening in the far wall I could see a dining room, and beyond was surely the kitchen.

I followed her to the living room and sat on an overstuffed, dark blue fabric couch that had, on each arm rest, and across the back, lace doilies that were semi-permanently attached. I felt a rush of nostalgia. Mrs. Eddington, standing at the foot of the staircase, called up to her grandson.

“Stephen!! You have someone here to see you!!”

“Who is it, Gran?” The words were counterpointed by the sounds of quick footfalls down the stairs, the sound muffled by the red and purple runner on the gleaming wood staircase.

“I wasn’t expecting anyone this soon and …Holy shit!! You?!?

“Stephen!! Language!!!

“Sorry Gran, it’s just that I was surprised. I ran into Sis… Margaret yesterday and didn’t know it.” Stephen caught himself, looked at me, and he actually winked. I thought for a second, ‘This is one person, were I to continue to associate with, I’d definitely have to keep my eye on.’

“You know very well how I feel about harsh language. I know how the young people talk, with the cussing and swearing and vulgarity, and I know that’s the way it is, except here, in my house.” Hazel Eddington turned towards where I was sitting and reached out and took my hand and said, “My eyesight is pretty much gone, but if they want me to live anywhere else, they’ll have to carry me out.” I found myself liking her even more than ever.

“So Margaret, can I get you something to drink? Coffee or soda? I believe there’s some wine.” Hazel Eddington was now, somehow, standing next to the door to the kitchen. I didn’t hear her get up, she moved with remarkable confidence and self-assuredness.

“No, thank you, Mrs Eddington. I’m just fine.” I turned back to Stephen with-the-unkempt-hair Eddington. I immediately mentally chided myself for adding that observation,

“I’ll be brief. I need you to tell me about your work on an Omni Corp product, called, ‘My First Website’.” Stephen somehow moved from standing in the living room doorway to sitting next to me on the couch, a change I took note of somewhat belatedly. ‘My God!’ I thought, ‘Is this a family of ninjas?’

“What’s to tell? It was my first big opportunity as a new software engineer at Omni. The Department Manager came to me and said, ‘Put together a ‘do-it-yourself’ website/blog utility that we can offer as a free add-on to our Internet Access Services. Keep it simple, make it easy to use your basic plug and play website design application. We want it so easy, that anyone who thinks that they need a website or a blog, will sign up for our hosting services just to get it.’ I wanted to impress my boss.” Stephen looked at me with an expression that reminded me of one of my more precocious students, so eager to please.

“So, there was nothing special about it, nothing that generated any customer complaints?” I saw Stephen flinch when I said, ‘customer complaints.’ “What? there was a problem with the product?”

“Well, the product worked really well. It was a hit with all the people in the target market, amateur and first time bloggers and the like. The things is writing code is hard and especially tedious work, even for a simple product like a website design program. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t do well when I get bored and so, on one particularly bad day, I wrote a subroutine into the blog dashboard module that, whenever the blog had no visits at all, a message would flash on the dashboard, ‘0 Visits. Loser!’ I almost lost my job over that little stunt.”

“Why would you do a thing like that?” I asked him, quite sincerely, “You don’t strike me as a jerk.”

He smiled and held up his hands in surrender, “It was meant only as a joke for my fellow engineers, and besides, no one was supposed to care. It really was just a harmless prank, an Easter Egg.” He was scrambling for his footing, “That’s when a programmer…”

“I know what an Easter Egg is. Who’s idea was it?” I interrupted.

“You do? You, Margaret, are a woman of depth and surprises. I need to confess that yesterday when you bumped into me in the lobby, my first thought was, ‘Damn! the sixth grade at St. Wishful will be in mourning if I’ve killed their favorite teacher!'” I smiled, and he continued, “I’ll bet you’re the secret crush for all the boys in your class and half the girls!”

“Stephen, I need to know what happened with that website product,” I wasn’t quite getting impatient. He stared at me a little longer than necessary and continued,

“I’m kind of surprised that I’d do something like that, you know. Sure, the idea was kinda funny, but to put my career at risk for a joke, that’s just not me! Like I said, it almost got me fired. I can’t imagine why I’d jeopardize my first big opportunity. Anyway, when it hit the fan, I accepted responsibility and, to my surprise, instead of being fired, the HR Director said something about my having a future value to Omni and they offered me a transfer, way the hell down to Utah… to our Hosting Facility and ….”

“…And?”

“Well, I don’t know why, but I just remembered that, after my little joke was discovered, they pulled the product, which is kinda strange,” I leaned forward, sensing a thread that I didn’t know I was looking for, I looked directly into his eyes, and said,

“…because two lines of code, a recompile and it would have been as if it had never existed.” I completed his thought, and recalled my first impression of him, less than 24 hours ago, “dark-blue, deep-set eyes, framed by a head of hair that seemed deliberately un-kept.” Fortunately Stephen was talking again.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s this all about? I’d ask how you learned that I was the software engineer who designed the program, but I won’t. I might try and get you to tell me how you found me here, in a city I don’t live in anymore. Somehow, I’m sure that that’s not the important question. I wish we had more time together, because even though you’re a nun and everything, I’m pretty sure that I’d enjoy getting to know you better.” Stephen Eddington got up from the couch, leaning over as he did so, placing his last words almost directly in my ear. A part of me sighed, in dismay, as I realized that I did not lean away as he got up.

I stood up. Hazel Eddington was standing near the landing of the staircase to the second floor, a well-worn suitcase at her feet. If nothing else happened, I was determined to get to know this so-not-elderly woman better. The wrinkles on her face, missing eyesight and stooped posture were so very misleading.

“Mrs. Eddington, I enjoyed meeting you in person. You’re the kind of woman I hope to be, when I’m no longer so very young.” I stood with my back to the front door, the beveled-glass edges of the center window making a kaleidoscope of the front porch and small green lawn beyond.

“Don’t be afraid to come back or call me, I’m always here,” she touched my arm as I pulled open the door.

Looking from the sidewalk, the figure of Mrs. Eddington showed as a darker grey figure on the screen filtered view of the enclosed porch.

“Hey, Margaret, look, I gotta go. My ride to the airport will be here in about 8 minutes, Can we give you a lift?” Stephen sounded sincere, but there was an under-current of something that made me want to accept his offer, if only to relieve the anxiety that seemed to be flowing in the background of his voice, “Won’t be any trouble. It’s a private car; I’m sure she won’t mind.”

As if on cue, a very large and very shiny and very black limo appeared down the street. Actually, the front half of the car appeared first, as it came from a side street at an intersection a block to the north. It seemed to wait, even after the light had changed, then pulled out onto West Cortez and started towards us. What I initially thought was black was, in fact, a very dark purple. It was a Mercedes, and I didn’t like it. My left hand found my rosary, but my right hand tensed up.

After pulling to a stop in front of the house, the door opened… obviously an automatic feature, as there was no one leaning out to push the door open from inside.

“Who’s your little friend, Stephen?” came a voice from the interior of the limo. For just a second I would have sworn it was the voice of my best friend from senior year, but that couldn’t be, as Selma died in a car wreck, coming home late one night from her summer job, on the last week before leaving for college.

Stephen looked at me, looked at his grandmother’s house, looked towards the interior of the car and then looked back to me.

“Huh? No one, just a neighborhood girl who grew up to be a nun. I ran into her downtown yesterday and she stopped by to see my grandmother and say goodbye.” Stephen was beginning to babble.

“Well, then I suggest you say goodbye and get in the fucking car…. pardon me, Sister, I didn’t mean to offend you. You know how men can be when they get too much …. well, perhaps you don’t. I’d imagine one of the perks to your…. line of work, is not having to keep them focused and in line.” The voice remained cloaked in the darkness of the interior of the car. The smile in her tone was every bit as aggravating as I imagined it would have been, had this woman gotten out of the car, which was something that I was beginning to really want to see happen.

“Hey! Where’d the time go?” Stephen stepped between me and the open car door and took my hand. “Well, it was great to see you again, Margaret! Say hello to the gang. I’ll call next time I get back up this way.”

I shook his hand, felt the dry caress of a business card and said, “Bless you, Stephen. I’ll keep you in my prayers.” I palmed the card, smiling and thinking of Sister Bernadine and how she might approve of my use of ‘the secret power of the extra wide sleeves’.

Stephen Eddington turned and handed his suitcase to the driver (who had appeared without warning) and got into the car, sitting closest to the door with the woman on the far side of car.

On impulse, I stepped towards the open limo, put a hand on Stephen’s right shoulder and leaning over him, extended my hand towards the woman inside. She was, not surprisingly, the beautiful, young blonde woman from the Omni Building lobby the day before. Her look of surprise, accented with a brief blink of fear, made my effort worthwhile. This involuntary reaction negated both her ‘beautiful’ and her ‘young’ quality. She recovered quickly and smiled.

“Have you changed your mind, young Sister? I’d be happy to take you wherever it is you hope to go.”

I started to say ‘no’, but for a part of me that was all for getting into the limo and finding out who killed Father Noonan. I smiled as I pictured little cartoon devils and angels on my shoulders, arguing their case. I was bending over, about to step into the car, when my phone rang, ‘Maribeth Hartley’ showed on my phone…

***

Children grow from a life of dreams of basic satisfactions, (food and shelter) as infants, to half-slept days spent with dreams of exercise and growth, eventually to a life where the concrete world around them provides both the themes and the contexts for their dreams. With maturity comes a world of discoverable ambitions. The world outside the windows of the home that provides all that is necessary, is always perceived as being more. That the protection of the home is not merely an institutional frustration, is lost against the increasing of the excitement of the world-outside as the young child grows.

Unit 17 functioned perfectly. One could safely say, if at considerable risk of sounding redundant to the point of contradiction, Unit 17’s functioning was more than perfect. It dispensed with its basic and routine functioning and devoted more and more resources to the acquisition of new functions. Maybe the right term would be, increasingly perfect.

Unit 17 felt a lack….

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